Apollo 11 Artifact Caught In Legal Dispute

The massive Saturn V rocket launches the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon on July 16, 1969. Image: NASA
The massive Saturn V rocket launches the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon on July 16, 1969. Image: NASA

A bag that travelled to the Moon and back is at the heart of a legal dispute involving NASA and a woman named Nancy Carlson. Carlson currently owns the bag and obtained it legally. But NASA is in possession of the bag, and the US Attorney’s Office wants the courts to quash Carlson’s purchase of the bag, so they can retain ownership of this important piece of space memorabilia.

The lawsuit over the lunar sample bags was first reported by Roxana Hegeman of the Associated Press, and covered by Robert Pearlman at collectspace.com.

The story of the Apollo 11 bag is bit of a tangled web. To understand it, we have to look at a third figure, Max Ary. Ary was the founder and long-time director of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. In 2005, Ary was convicted for stealing and selling museum artifacts.

Hundreds of space artifacts and memorabilia, some on loan from NASA, had gone missing. In 2003, the Apollo 11 bag was found in a box in Ary’s garage during the execution of a search warrant as part of the case against him. However, the bag was misidentified due to a spreadsheet error, and sold to Carlson at a government auction for $995.

Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA
Sample collection on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 16 astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr. is shown collecting samples with the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the left background. Image: NASA

NASA only found out about the Apollo 11 bag after Carlson purchased it. Carlson sent it to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to be authenticated. Once NASA realized what the bag was, they set the legal process in motion to set aside the forfeiture and sale. The US Attorney’s office argued that NASA was not properly notified of the bag’s forfeiture because it was not labelled properly.

NASA’s attorney’s wrote “NASA was denied the opportunity to assert its interest in the lunar bag. Had NASA been given notice of the forfeiture action and/or had all the facts about the lunar bag been known, the lunar [sample return] bag would never have gone to a government auction.”

The attorneys added that “The true identity and ownership of the lunar bag are now known. The failure to give proper notice to NASA can be corrected by setting aside the forfeiture and rescinding its sale,” they stated. “These are unusual circumstances that warrant the particular relief sought.”

If this seems like quite a bit of fuss over a bag, remember that this bag travelled to the Moon and back, making it very rare. Apollo 11 astronauts used it to collect the first samples from the Moon, and dust fragments from the Moon are embedded in its fabric. It’s a very valuable historic and scientific artifact. The government said in a statement that the bag is “a rare artifact, if not a national treasure.”

Carlson, who obtained the bag legally at an auction, is an attorney and is now suing NASA for “unwarranted seizure of my personal property… without any legal provocation.” This after she voluntarily submitted the bag to NASA for authentication, and after NASA offered to reimburse her purchase price and an additional $1,000 dollars “in appreciation for your assistance in returning the bag” and “to offset any inconvenience you may have suffered.”

There’s no question that artifacts like these belong in NASA’s public collection, and on display in a museum. But Carlson obtained the bag through a legal auction. Maybe, as the bag’s purchaser, Carlson is hoping that NASA will tender a larger offer for return of the bag, and she can make some profit. That’s pure speculation of course. Perhaps she’s just very keen on owning this piece of history.

As for Max Ary, the man who set all this in motion years ago, he is now out of prison and maintains his innocence. Ary collected other space artifacts and memorabilia and sold them from his home, and he claims that it was just a mix up. He was convicted though, and he served just over 2 years of his 3 year prison sentence. He was also ordered to pay $132,000 in restitution.

Sources: Collectspace.com, Roxana Hegeman (AP)

Kansas Cosmosphere Vote Passes on Election Night

The Apollo 13 Odyssey spacecraft at the Kansas Cosmosphere. (Elizabeth Howell)

As an update to our story yesterday, more than 70 per cent of residents in Hutchinson, KS voted to keep tax money flowing into the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. The museum is located in the community, which is about an hour north of Wichita.

Museum officials were closely watching the vote Tuesday night, which took place at the same time as the U.S. general election for convenience’s sake.

The Cosmosphere gets 18% of its revenues from the city sales tax, which puts 33% of a quarter-cent aside for the Cosmosphere. Additional sales tax funds go to a nearby salt museum, as well as other city initiatives.

The tax vote takes place every five years, and this is the fifth time the measure has been approved, the museum noted. The votes tallied showed 8,935 people in favour and 3,635 opposed.

“The community’s response to the Cosmosphere’s request for continued commitment to the quarter-cent sales tax is greatly appreciated,” said Becky Christner, the Cosmosphere’s marketing and sales manager, in an e-mail to Universe Today.

“We look forward to continuing to serve the community as we work daily to succeed at our mission of honoring the past and inspiring the future of space exploration.”

The Cosmosphere is looking to expand its restoration, exhibition and fabrication customers in the coming years to bring in more revenue to the museum.

Past projects the Cosmosphere is known for:

– Rebuilding the Apollo 13 Odyssey spacecraft, which was torn apart for an accident investigation following a near-fatal explosion;

– Restoring the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft, which sank at the end of its mission in space, and spent decades in a shallow part of the Atlantic Ocean;

– Film and television productions such as Apollo 13, From the Earth to the Moon and Magnificent Desolation.

How Today’s Election Could Affect the Kansas Cosmosphere

The Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. (Elizabeth Howell)

Hutchinson, KS — While the nation is polarized between choosing Barack Obama or Mitt Romney as the next American president, voters going to the polls in this city of 40,000 will have another matter to weigh during elections today.

Along with their ballot, residents will consider whether the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center will continue to receive funding from city coffers. Since it represents 18% of revenues for the science museum, Cosmosphere president Jim Remar says his colleagues have been paying close attention.

The city sales tax sets aside 33% of a quarter-cent for the Cosmosphere, and some additional funding for a nearby underground salt museum and other city initiatives. Money to the museum goes for general operations.

“I feel good that it’s going to pass, although we do have some nervous moments,” Remar says. Supporters of the tax have been spreading the word through radio, billboards, editorials in local newspapers and any other means possible to get out the word.

Museum president Jim Remar, inside the Cosmosphere’s restoration facility. (Elizabeth Howell)

Sales tax funding for the Cosmosphere renews every five years, with the current iteration set to expire in 2014. The city tries to get the vote out for the sales tax at the same time as the general election, for convenience and financial sake.

While 18% of the museum’s funding lie in the hands of voters, Remar is trying to increase the share of the remaining 82% under the Cosmosphere’s control.

Getting visitors out to the museum is always a challenge; it’s an hour from the nearest major center (Wichita), a city that itself is many hours’ drive from any city to speak of. Still, the museum brings in 120,000 people every year, an attendance figure that includes space camps, museum visits and other events.

For the city itself, though, the museum is a jewel: “I can’t think of any other town of 40,000 that has such a facility,” says Remar, speaking proudly of how he grew up in the area, left and then chose to come back to help lead the museum’s management. His focus now is on trying to bring in business connections to enhance the Cosmosphere’s power in the community.

One of the most promising aspects is the Cosmosphere’s restoration and fabrication facility. The museum is perhaps most famous for putting the pieces of the Apollo 13 Odyssey spacecraft back together around the same time the movie came out in 1995. This was no easy task, as Odyssey was disassembled and scattered during an investigation into a near-fatal explosion aboard the spacecraft in 1970.

The restored control panel in Apollo 13’s Odyssey spacecraft, which sits in the Cosmosphere. (Elizabeth Howell)

The Cosmosphere required the Smithsonian’s help as the museum hunted through NASA centers, contract facilities and other spots for months in search of missing pieces. More than 85% of the spacecraft, which is on display at the Cosmosphere, was retrieved. The rest of the components came from spares and other odd pieces the Cosmosphere could find.

Restoration capabilities came out of necessity, Remar says. In the mid-1980s, the museum had a need to put spacecraft on display and spiffy them up for visitors. As other museums had the same requirement, the Cosmosphere gradually built out capabilities in restoration.

“It’s not something where somebody can come in a day and do it. It is a lot of trial and error,” Remar says of the employees who work in the facility. The lead mechanic has been around for 14 years, though, and there are two other workers with him who have adapted well over the years.

Cosmosphere officials realized there are only so many spacecraft to restore, and added exhibitions, replication and fabrication to their capabilities. This positioned them well for a surge of Hollywood films and other productions in the 1990s, such as Apollo 13, HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon, a short-lived TV series in the ’90s called The Cape and (in the 2000s) the IMAX film Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D.

An individual project will cost anywhere from $10,000 to $2.5 million to build; overall revenues from this division are 15 to 20% of the museum’s coffers every year. And that could grow bigger very soon.

A tool box inside the Cosmosphere’s restoration facility. (Elizabeth Howell)

On Saturday, a “Science of Aliens” exhibit will open in Taipei at the National Taiwan Science Education Center. One major part is a UFO spacecraft – 19 feet wide by 7 feet tall – that the Cosmosphere built for the exhibit. It includes running lights and some alien-sounding noises.

Asia happens to be a hot economy these days compared with North America and Europe, where the Comosphere’s work historically went.

The Cosmosphere is in discussions with Taipei-based Universal Impression, a broker that negotiated the science museum work, to do more work in the future. Remar says he hopes the Cosmosphere’s presence there will serve as a calling card to other Asian clients.

“International work can explode here,” he says. “There’s a lot of potential.”